In foreign language classes, listening skills are an obvious topic to cover, but Common Core Standards are bringing listening skills into the language arts, social studies, and science curricula as well. Under the heading of Speaking and Listening: Comprehension and Collaboration, there are three standards: holding productive discussions, comprehending information presented in diverse formats, and analyzing the perspective/argument of the person delivering the information.
From the perspective of a museum professional whose world rotates around primary sources, I read this portion of the standards and thought “what a shining moment for oral histories!” Oral histories are the collections of people’s reminiscences, accounts, and interpretations of the past in their own words . They are usually in an interview format, with the subject directly conveying his feelings about the events in which he was involved, then made available as audio, video, or text transcript format.
Recorded oral histories provide a great opportunity to dig into the comprehension and analysis portions of the standards. The stories within oral histories often provide a great foil for comparison between personal, emotional recollections and the sweeping, distant history textbook. And the oral history subject is always coming from a very specific perspective, which can be unpacked by students during analysis.
To support teachers in using oral histories in their classrooms, Smithsonian’s History Explorer has developed a series of materials, especially for the middle and high school classroom.
- Gain an introduction to oral histories with pages 35-39 of Engaging Students with Primary Sources (with a strengths/weaknesses chart, suggestions for where to find oral histories, and a student worksheet for analyzing any oral history)
- Hear about World War II through first-hand accounts of mariners and a shipyard worker (with teacher guide, student worksheets, audio clips, and supporting primary and secondary sources)
- Learn about segregation and desegregation through the recollections of jazz musician John Levy (with teacher guide, student worksheets, audio clips, and supporting primary and secondary sources)
- Explore jazz (April is Jazz Appreciation month!) through oral histories of over 90 different artists (with a teacher guide and student worksheet for analyzing any of the artists)
These materials remove some of the leg-work required in presenting meaningful encounters with oral histories. For example, if you are interested in addressing CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2 (Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats), it may be daunting to assemble multiple sources of information. History Explorer has 5 different kits of primary sources (4 on World War II and 1 on segregation) which each include oral history snippets along with photographs, newspaper articles, or artifact images. Each of oral histories listed above also includes a text transcript of the audio clips, to provide an option to support struggling learners.
And if you are an ambitious teacher planning to have your students create their own oral histories, you will likely have your students exploring all three of the Comprehension and Collaboration standards. For preparation tips and sample questions, we recommend the Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide.